Experiments in Film - Part I

If it seems a bit quiet around here, it’s because I’ve been changing up my workflow a bit — specifically, experimenting with medium format film photography. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, for several reasons. First and foremost, I’ve been inspired by the superior quality of medium format film as compared to digital. Creamy skin tones, a more three-dimensional quality with superior gradations of color/tone, lovely grain, no blown out highlights — these are all of the things I’ve noticed and read about. I also like film’s tangible quality. With the release of the shutter, I’ve created an image on film — not just bits and bytes but an actual tangible thing that must be developed. Finally, film photography is so fundamental to all photography that I think it’s important to my development as a photographer to understand it. I hope that if I can achieve some mastery of film, it will improve my photography skills (whether shooting film or digital) by forcing me to take a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to every shot.

I’ve been shooting almost exclusively film for the past month, and I plan to continue to immerse myself in this medium for the next few months. Up until now, the content on this blog has been almost exclusively my photos. However, I’m going to share my experiences shooting medium format film in several posts over the next few months.

So, what’s it been like shooting only film for the past month? I’ll start by discussing my equipment. I spent a fair amount of time researching the various medium format camera options. I really wanted something that would be both affordable and workable with my style. I like to take my camera with me everywhere, so I sought to avoid (initially at least) the many large modular medium format cameras out there that include a body, a removable film back, a prism, and a lens. I just couldn’t see shoving one of those in my purse. This basically limited me to a medium format rangefinder. My top two contenders were the Mamiya 7 II and the Fujifilm GF670.

Both cameras have pros and cons. Both cameras can be purchased new. The Mamiya cost $3,700, while the GF670 cost only $1,660. I should note here that B & H offers some pretty generous discounts through its student program. You do NOT have to be a full-time student to qualify. I applied for and was approved for the “EDU Advantage” program on the basis of taking a one-weekend class at the International Center for Photography. With the student discount, the Mamiya cost $2,960 and the GF670 cost $1,580. Not a bad discount, especially for the Mamiya. While the discounts vary by product, it is well worth looking into joining the EDU Advantage program if you think you may qualify. (Note that B & H offers a nice student discount on Hasselblads.

The Mamiya is obviously significantly more expensive than the GF670, but it offers an interchangeable lens system — something the GF670 lacks. At this stage, I did not feel ready to commit to a new lens system without more experience shooting film, so the Mamiya’s interchangeable lens system was not a huge draw. I was, however, very impressed with the durability and portability of the GF670. It’s a folding camera, and when opened, its bellows are exposed and the lens pops out. It’s very cool and vintage looking, and you will get a reaction when people see it. When folded, the lens retracts inside the camera, which closes up to protect it. When folded, the GF670 is very small and discrete. I knew it would be easy to take with me everywhere. The build quality of the GF670 is also very impressive. On the other hand, some commentators described the Mamiya as “fussy.” The Mamiya shoots in 6x7 format, while the GF670 allows you to choose 6x7 or 6x6. Both cameras are mirrorless and use a leaf shutter, which means that they can be handheld at very slow shutter speeds. While leaning towards the GF670, I took my research to Flickr, where I searched the tags to find photos taken with the GF670 and the Mamiya, and I reviewed threads discussing these cameras.

Ultimately, I chose the GF670 because of its price, portability, the option to shoot 6x6 or 6x7, and because it gets almost universally positive reviews. While I very much enjoyed shooting with the GF670, in the end, I took advantage of B & H’s generous 30-day return policy. I really struggled with the rangefinder focusing system. I was disappointed that so many of my shots were not in focus. I found it very difficult to take quick, spur of the moment shots with this focusing system. Instead, it takes some time to set up the shot and line everything up. This doesn’t work for many of the street shots I like to take. While I wanted to slow down with film, I found that I was actually shooting less, because with the GF670, I found it difficult to take the types of photos I like to take. In addition, the GF670 (and I think all rangefinders) have a much larger minimum focusing distance that SLR cameras. I want to have the option to take close-ups, so I found this further limiting. I also did not love the ergonomics of the GF670. Both the focusing ring and the aperture settings are on the lens. I found the camera somewhat awkward to hold, focus, and adjust those settings. That said, the GF670 is a nice little camera, and if I could afford it, I would have gladly kept it as an extra camera to take with me when I don’t want to lug around something larger. Below are my two best shots with the GF670.

Tamara

Vespa

My experience with the GF670 made me realize that I’m an SLR kinda girl, which means that if I want to shoot medium format, I will have to invest in a large clunker. Enter the Contax 645, which I will discuss in my next post on my Experiments in Film. Also, for anyone thinking of trying film photography, I highly recommend the book Film Is Not Dead by Jonathan Canlas. It’s a pretty inspiring read, with camera reviews, discussion of film types, and practical instruction, not to mention gorgeous photos.